Unless Iraq can be stabilised soon, policy planners in both the US and UK may well have to start thinking about an exit strategy.
By Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online world affairs correspondent
Will US look for a way out?
Already coalition forces are trying to reduce confrontations in the hope that a period of relative calm can emerge in the run-up to the handover to an interim government on 30 June.
This tactic could see the emergence of new combinations of Iraqi security forces in a more complex line-up than the coalition envisaged. It might have no choice but to accept them.
But if the policy does not work and the handover proves to be symbolic only, then attention will have to turn to the circumstances in which troops can first be reduced and then perhaps be withdrawn.
The problem with the current plan for Iraq is that there is no date by which foreign troops will leave.
There is no clear exit strategy.
It is all left open for future decisions by the series of three Iraqi governments due to take over in the coming 18 months:
- the appointed caretaker interim government on 30 June
- the transitional government to be chosen by an elected national assembly next January
- the fully elected government at the start of 2006.
While the caretaker government might not act, since it will be made up of coalition supporters, the assembly elections in December or January could be dominated by the issue, leading to a request by the transitional government for a date to be set for withdrawal or for a process to be started.
But even the caretaker government might start making noises, especially if its members are political leaders rather than the technocrats sought by UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is heading the effort to set the government up.
A new factor is also coming into play - growing domestic opposition to the occupation in the US and UK.
This has been fuelled by the disgust and despair at the treatment of Iraqi prisoners and now the beheading of an American civilian. A key lesson of Vietnam was that a war can be lost on the home front as much as on the front line.
There is another potential issue and that is whether, at some stage, the British government might break ranks with Washington and call for a change.
In the meantime, the coalition is trying to develop an interim strategy of reducing tension. This was evident in what happened in Falluja where, despite coalition statements that "foreign fighters and terrorists" would be brought to heel, the city was handed over a new force of old Iraqi soldiers.
Now, General Martin Dempsey, commander of the 1st Armoured Division, says the formula might be tried in other cities.
"We are going to try this model any place that I control right now and I think probably you are going to see some similar approaches across the country," he said.
It is also evident in the handling of the Muslim cleric Moqtada Sadr. General Dempsey has even said that he might hand over security in the holy city of Najaf, where Mr Sadr is based, to a local force which could even include members of the Sadr militia. That would be a significant change indeed.
A senior British official with experience of Iraq said of Moqtada Sadr this week: "The strategy is to get the Iraqis, through the religious authorities, the governors and the provincial councils and the police to act to isolate him."
That is quite a change from the earlier policy of trying to arrest him.
However, the latest policy does not exclude military action from time to time against the Sadr militia where it gets too strong, as has been seen in several cities. The British army took action recently in Amara.
"The coalition has to choose the timing and tactical methods of neutralising these people," the official said. The Americans have been attacking Sadr forces in Karbala.
US officers speak openly
The coalition is bowing to a new reality over security. It cannot impose its will and this is accepted by senior soldiers with experience on the ground.
In a remarkable series of interviews in the Washington Post, senior American army officers have openly expressed doubts about whether the United States will win.
Major General Charles Swannack, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division which was in western Iraq for much of the past year, said that tactically the US was winning but when asked if overall it was losing, replied: "I think strategically we are."
Colonel Paul Hughes, the first director of strategic planning in Iraq after the war, whose brother died in Vietnam said: "Here I am, 30 years later, thinking we will win every fight and lose the war, because we don't understand the war we are in."